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'More than UB40 and heavy metal': Birmingham's alternative arts and entertainment | Travel

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The last time Birmingham hosted a major international event – ​​Eurovision and Bill Clinton’s visit for the G8 summit, both in May 1998 – the powers that be prepared by painting the scabby grass verge lining roads from the airport a vivid green. For the 2022 Commonwealth Games, there has been a similar sweeping under the municipal carpet: unloved buildings draped with huge colorful graphics featuring the mascot (Perry, a patchwork bull) and a desperate rush to get the trams running again. But this time the city really does seem to be getting something tangible, as well as a hope that the attention will last longer than the time it takes for a US president to drink a pint of mild.

Alongside the additions of some transport infrastructure and the venues, there has been an explosion of culture covering the city. In some cases that’s literal: Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke’s Foreign Exchange takes liberties with the statue of Queen Victoria in the square named for her. She will not, of course, be amused that she is crated and placed in a boat with five smaller clones. Locke says he has placed the monarch “as if she is about to be shipped off, like so many of these Victoria statues sent all round the world”.

The Birmingham 2022 festival has created, co-opted and repackaged a huge variety of what Brum has to offer culturally this summer. One such exhibition is In the Que (Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, every day until 30 October, free). Described as “a sensory celebration of one of the UK’s greatest music venues”, this exhibition is a heartfelt homage to a uniquely Brummie nightlife legend. With its home the gothic Grade II-listed Methodist Central Hall for many years, the Que Club was a live music venue, hosting acts such as Pulp and Primal Scream. Possibly more importantly, it was the home of rave and dance culture, with club nights such as House of God. Birmingham, this exhibition says, is more than UB40 and heavy metal.

A recreation statue of King Kong unveiled in Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games.
A recreation statue of King Kong unveiled in Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games. Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Guardian

To catch the vibe in the city centre, visit the Commonwealth Games festival park in the nearby Jewelery Quarter (Great Hampton Row, free). King Kong Park will bring back a long-lost King Kong statue (last glimpsed in Stewart Lee’s recent hit documentary King Rocker, about local lad Robert Lloyd and his band the Nightingales). If you trust the online chatter there’s nothing Brummies are more excited about. The plan is for the giant ape (a replica of Nicholas Monro’s 1970s original) to remain in town after the games have moved on, and an exhibition all about him is open at the new Great Hampton Street art space.

Often called a “Brum Banksy”, but more edgy and more direct, Foka Wolf will no doubt have something planned for the summer. He is after all the one who branded Birmingham’s flagship Primark store (the world’s biggest) as “Europe’s Biggest Jumble Sale” on the hoardings as it was being built. He’s notorious for taking aim at politicians and corporations, so he will be a surprise if he doesn’t strike somewhere again. He’s already part of the “Don’t forget the real ones” project and says: “We wanted to highlight the rich talent the north of Birmingham has and how a lot of it has been overlooked by the 2022 Commonwealth Games”.

In northern Birmingham (where the athletics events will take place), ex-KLF hitmaker and artist Bill Drummond often refreshes his artwork by the canal underneath Spaghetti Junction. Visitors will need to get out of the center to find the places where alternative culture has not been covered up, as well as seeing some of the games which are spread around the region. The best finds are mostly outside the inner ring road in Digbeth, or slightly further out in suburbs such as Kings Heath or newly trendy Stirchley.


The 5678s on stage at the Night Owl
The 5678s at the Night Owl Photograph: Monica Martini

The Night Owl, Digbeth
Styled as a soul music venue, the Night Owl is bright and friendly with a range of ages and types of people. The music policy keeps that welcoming and upbeat vibe going. You may brush up against expert northern soul dancers in their flares, as well as geezers in their Adidas Gazelles giving it a good go. It also attracts a decent selection of more unusual touring bands – Tarantino-famous Japanese girl rockers the played recently, although it does also have the odd Oasis tribute act. Kaleidoscope (Thursdays, monthly) is a live music night with a laid-back atmosphere and artists exhibiting their work.

The Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath
This is one of the few preserved examples of an architectural style that flourished in Birmingham long before concrete took over in the 1950s and 60s. Downstairs has hip decor and art nouveau tiles, while upstairs are two venues that host the best alternative local and international acts. Nights might feature local “doom-pah” folk-punk legends the Destroyers alongside US gothic country duo the Handsome Family.

Dead Wax Digbeth
The concept at this strange, dark, but cool place spins round a love of vinyl: retro TVs on the walls, pizza (also round) in the oven, and a 4,000-strong collection of records. You can dig through the crates or even bring your own vinyl and sup craft beer. There’s a venue upstairs in which you never quite know what you’re going to get, though it will usually be loud and dirty.


Red Brick Market, Digbeth.
Red Brick Market, Digbeth. Photograph: Peter Lopeman/Alamy

The Red Brick Market, Digbeth
Tucked away in one of the many Digbeth buildings that were once home to heavy industry is a marketplace of small independent creatives “from sustainable fashion and homewares to antiquities, rare finds and original pieces”. Birmingham has a dearth of affordable shopping space in a center dominated by two large malls and huge high street units, so the Red Brick Market is a welcome addition and might be a cooler version of Manchester’s Afflecks.

Artifact, Stirchley
As Birmingham’s stock rises, the creative scenes find new places to flourish. Stirchley, a suburb around five miles south of the city, is growing, trending and even about to get a new (reopened) train station. Artifact is one of the reasons it’s now the place to be. It’s an artist-led gallery, workspace and bar with a flow of interesting free exhibitions, events and talks. There’s music, poetry and even a Karl Marx reading group – which it may need to resist the inevitable commercialization of its home.


Hockley Social Club exterior with crowd
Hockley Social Club

Hockley Social Club, Jewelery Quarter
This is another former factory – an ex-printworks – that is now a bar, street food venue and record store. Set up by the team behind the exemplary Digbeth Dining Club, it’s certainly eclectic, with Afrobeat nights alongside comedy and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, plus there’s an expansive selection of food and cocktails in and outside.

Tilt, City Center
Tilt is a tight venue right in the city centre. It offers a rotating craft beer range (and a huge selection to take away), specialty coffee and the best thing: pinball. “Tilt keeps a range of modern pinball tables on the ground floor but upstairs and the basement have the real gems: a treasure trove of 90s tables including my personal favourite, The Addams Family,” says Jon Hickman, editor of Paradise Circus, a website that has chronicled and satirized the city for 10 years. You can even bring your own food.


Warehouse cafe interior,
Warehouse Cafe is ethical but never po-faced

Warehouse Cafe, City Center
The Warehouse Cafe is a worker-run cooperative cafe and bar in a back street near the Bullring. Ethical but never po-faced, it offers vegan food and music, poetry, parties, DJs, talks, workshops and art sessions. It is, naturally, fully wheelchair-accessible and child- and dog-friendly – ​​it’s very cool.

The Spice Merchant, Kings Heath
The no 1 way to get a true Birmingham food experience is to ask a local where “their” curry house is: not the best, or the nearest, but the one they think of as theirs. A restaurant that many residents of Kings Heath and beyond will recommend is the Spice Merchant. Abid and his team make you feel completely at home, with a Kashmiri-based menu and a selection of wines and beers. But there are others around town just as good: ask a Brummie.

Jon Bounds is the co-author of Birmingham: It’s Not Shit: 50 Things That Delight About Brum